Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will Vos Expose Legislators to COVID-19?

He demands Assembly meet in-person. That “could kill me,” Rep. Jimmy Anderson says.

By - Dec 28th, 2020 03:52 pm
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. File photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. File photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has declared that the 99 members of the lower house must meet in-person when the Legislature convenes in January. 

“People all across Wisconsin safely go to work every day and members of the Assembly are capable of doing so as well,” Vos in an emailed statement first reported by the Up North News. “Congress met this week to pass legislation and in January we will meet safely, like other legislatures across the country have done during the pandemic.”

But Vos’s suggestion that legislatures “across the country” are meeting in person is not exactly true. Since the pandemic, at least 25 legislatures, either one chamber or both, adopted rules or legislation to allow for remote participation, as Natalie Wood of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), told the publication Maryland Matters. Most of these legislatures “used virtual meeting tools such as Zoom and live-streamed proceedings to allow public participation,” the publication noted.

And there is good reason for states to be careful. At least 162 state legislators nationwide have tested positive for the virus, according to The Associated Press, and three have died. And nearly 80 members of Congress have been infected with COVID-19, according to statistics kept by the website Ballotpedia.

Vos announcement of mandatory in-person Assembly sessions “came the same day as the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 120 state residents had died due to the coronavirus, a single-day record for deaths,” as Christina Lieffring reported for Up North News. 

During the eight months Republicans have refused to convene the Legislature and take any action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board have met regularly but remotely, conducting all kinds of business. Gov. Tony Evers has announced that he will be making the January 12 State of the State address and his Feb. 7 budget address virtually due to the pandemic and has encouraged the Legislature to convene virtually to hear both speeches. 

As for Vos’s claim that “People all across Wisconsin safely go to work every day,” the reality is that most people are working remotely. A Gallup Poll found that 33% of U.S. workers are always working remotely, and 25% are sometimes working remotely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) have estimated that people who go to a workplace are twice as likely to get COVID-19 than those who work from home. Is Vos so out of touch that he doesn’t understand how the pandemic has radically transformed the country?

Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), who is paralyzed from the shoulders down after an injury incurred in a car accident, told Up North News that he was informed he can attend Assembly sessions remotely, but will be required to be physically present for four votes. “As someone with significant lung issues, a respiratory illness like COVID-19 could easily kill me,” he said. 

Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton), who was elected in November to her first Assembly term, expressed concerns about the apparent lack of compliance with the CDCP guidelines in a series of posts on Twitter, the story reported. “The WI State Assembly is a hostile (and now dangerous) work environment. Legislators are having to choose between their health, health of their staff, families and communities or being in person for floor sessions,” she tweeted. “We can [and have been] doing our jobs remotely for months.”

Will Vos require legislators to wear masks and require social distancing? Even a state as resistant to pandemic restrictions as South Dakota is requiring that legislators wear masks, according information compiled by the NCSL Urban Milwaukee contacted Vos, asking whether there will be any such restrictions, and has yet to receive an answer.  

Will the new Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) follow the example of Vos and requires senators to meet in person? He did not respond to a request for comment on this from Urban Milwaukee. 

There is no more important duty for government officials than to save lives. Yet Vos and departing Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who has won a seat in Congress, have done everything they can to assure Wisconsin cannot take measures to protect people from the pandemic  As an analysis by Urban Milwaukee’s Data Wonk columnist has found the two Republicans lack of leadership, and their work to kill the Safer at Home order by the Evers administration, has caused more deaths and infections from COVID-19.

Apparently that’s not enough for Vos. He now wants to make things as unsafe as possible for legislators. 

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